Battle Brewing Between San Diego Privacy Advocates vs Supporters of Police Smart Streetlights and License Plate Readers

by on July 21, 2023 · 5 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

There’s a battle brewing right now in San Diego between privacy advocates and those who support the SDPD’s installation of “Smart Streetlights” and license plate readers.

Just this past Tuesday, the City Council extended the deadline for the Privacy Advisory Board to review the city’s surveillance and other technologies by 3 years. The initial deadline was one year, but by time that point was reached, the volunteer board had not reviewed one technology.

But then on Wednesday the city’s Public Safety Committee voted to support SDPD’s smart streetlight proposal. This pushes the divisive issue to the full council, and brings the installation of up to 500 cameras – all equipped with automated license plate reader technology — that much closer to reality.

Police plan to install the cameras across San Diego, but the highest concentrations would be in District 8, which includes communities like Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Otay Mesa, and District 3, which encompasses Hillcrest, North Park and downtown San Diego.

If installed, San Diego would be the largest city in the nation to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network.

The four member Public Safety Committee voted 3 to 1 in favor of the proposal, with Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Jennifer Campbell in support and Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe opposed.

These conflicting votes have the potential for an explosive city council hearing on the issue. This issue is getting so intense, that in the midst of lay-offs at the U-T, the editorial board today, July 21, issued a warning for Mayor Gloria to build trust in the police. The editorial set up the scenario:

… the activists’ victory on Tuesday gave way to defeat on Wednesday when the council’s Public Safety Committee voted 3-1 to allow the San Diego Police Department to proceed with installing 500 camera- and microphone-equipped “smart streetlights” — all equipped with automated license plate reader technology.

The proposal, which the privacy board opposed, would put a disproportionate number of cameras in lower-income, largely non-White communities like Barrio Logan and Logan Heights. This precisely reflects a key reason many activists believe police can’t be trusted: because they will use their resources in a racially and ethnically targeted manner, finding crime where they want to. …

Then the editorial warned:

In a job full of challenges, this is one of the most daunting issues Gloria faces — especially if viewed from the perspectives of the most impassioned observers. If activists or police union members feel he has betrayed them, that sentiment is unlikely to fade.

But the mayor, who is running for re-election, has a chance to find a balance in this debate that resonates with a lot of San Diegans. Steps can and must be taken that are responsive to police leaders and to what they say they need to keep more San Diegans safe.

Yet given the surveys showing SDPD’s history of racial disparities in police stops, keeping close tabs on how police are using their authority is crucial. So is taking the privacy board seriously when it criticizes a lack of cooperation from police.


In 2016, the San Diego City Council voted to spend $30 million on a project for police to use 3,000 smart streetlights to assess traffic and parking patterns throughout the city.

But the public learned years after the high-tech lights were installed that police could access video and other data they captured. The resulting outcry — based on concerns about privacy and equity — led San Diego to shut down the network and fueled the creation of the surveillance ordinance and the Privacy Advisory Board.

Part of that outcry led to the formation of a coalition called TRUST San Diego that involves 3 dozen community organizations and helped craft the city’s new surveillance ordinance. (Their website is somewhat out of date.)

A year later, the council unanimously approved a new surveillance ordinance that required city departments to disclose their surveillance technologies — everything from drones to car trackers to fingerprint scanners — and put together reports outlining how those tools are used and how they impact communities. That information would then make its way to the new Privacy Advisory Board and then to the City Council, which would decide whether a tool should stay in use.

The city has a vast inventory of more than 300 surveillance tools that supposedly need to be evaluated by a volunteer panel — which has complained numerous times that police are not being forthright with them.

Then this March, SDPD came up with a new proposal: the installation of 500 cameras, all equipped with automated license plate reader technology.

In opposing the measure at the committee meeting, Montgomery Steppe stressed that while she’s not against the use of technology to help police officers do their jobs, she felt strongly that these tools require another layer of accountability. She said:

“This process was wasn’t just intended to be a checklist, it was intended to be thorough. It was intended to promote collaboration with community members.”

Speakers who opposed the smart street lights and license plate reading technology said on Wednesday that they worried the technology would invade people’s privacy and lead to overpolicing in communities of color. Many said they didn’t trust the police to be good stewards of such powerful tools.

Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, was quoted:

“How will this impact my community? How will this impact folks who have various immigration statuses in my community? How will this impact and criminalize other members of our community?” And what we have seen with the streetlights and (license plate readers) is that there is not enough information for us to feel that these technologies will be used in a way that will not harm us.”

Yusufi’s organization is one of many that came together to form TRUST SD.

The other side of the debate is reflected in San Diego police Chief David Nisleit’s statement:

“Bringing back the use of Smart Streetlights will be a game changer for the San Diego Police Department. Investigators will be able to narrow in on suspects more quickly and with greater precision.”

Neslit and other police officials argue that they’ve used the streetlight technology to investigate hundreds of cases, including some high-profile ones that they love to cite.

However, Police officials also accessed streetlights 35 times to gather evidence against demonstrators suspected of committing crimes during protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

UT reporter Lyndsay Winkley wrote:

Although many acknowledge the technology’s potential as a crime-fighting tool, groups like the Privacy Advisory Board and others, have found the police department’s proposal lacking.

When the Privacy Advisory Board voted down the initiative last month, members said they felt the department hadn’t provided enough information about various aspects of the plan, including the purpose or goals of the streetlight program, how data would be collected and safeguarded, who would have access to the information gathered, how those individuals would be trained, and how the effectiveness of the technology would be assessed.

They also took issue with the fact that although department officials said they planned to install cameras made by Ubicquia, a telecommunications company, no information had been provided about the vendor that would supply the accompanying automated license plate reader technology.

On Wednesday, police officials said they would be pursuing a license plate reader contract with Flock Safety, which has partnered with more than 2,000 law enforcement departments, according to its website.

The battle between these opposing viewpoints will probably result in some kind of compromise. None of the council members are strict libertarians — they’re all Democrats — and the mayor is a Democrat. Will they circle the wagons or will we witness some intelligent push-back from the city’s legislative branch?


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Seth Hall July 22, 2023 at 9:36 am

Hi Frank, I run the community group San Diego Privacy and I also help with running and representing the TRUST SD Coalition of 35 community groups (including mine).

TRUST advocates for transparent and responsible use of surveillance technology. If we are able to be successful on any effort, that success means we won more transparency and/or more responsible use (which usually means better written policies that give San Diegans enforceable protections).

I think the media is thirsty for privacy so they frame TRUST as privacy advocates. Many of the TRUST groups would disagree this is about privacy and would argue their concern is about safety in their communities.

But really, TRUST is trying to help redirect this huge city towards transparency and responsible use as the city’s default when handling mass surveillance. Please remember that, whenever some councilmember or some media org tries to make it out like TRUST is anti-technology or primarily focused on privacy.

TRUST’s mission is baked right into the group’s name. As a result, any disagreement the city has with TRUST tends to be over how transparent the city should be, or over how detailed/specific their enforceable policies should be. When TRUST is hitting resistance, I think anyone who thinks transparency and responsible policies are important should be concerned, not only those concerned with privacy.


Frank Gormlie July 22, 2023 at 2:35 pm

Thanks Seth for the clarifications and we appreciate your work. (We met during OccupySD I believe.)


Mateo July 24, 2023 at 8:26 am

These are proprietary closed blackbox systems, that only the corporations that manufacture them can analyze. Nothing is open source, hacking, internal abuses, abuses by the City Attorney, SDPD and the corporations “trust us” is replete with Non Disclosure Agreements and the City has proven time and time and time and time and time again it CANNOT BE TRUSTED!

This Authoritarian Surveillance proposal still remains unchanged since introducing it; read it for yourself it is horrible and every advocacy group from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Data Privacy Advocates VEHEMENTLY OPPOSE THIS CONSTITUTIONAL ABUSE.
This proposal and the use of this equipment, domestically are unconstitutional, and will do nothing to prevent crime at all. The Automated License Plate Readers are a violation of constitutional law and our City Council and Mayor KNOW IT!

This mass domestic dragnet spying proposal is reprehensible and the government supporters of this technology are the ones profiting from lobbying for it are the ones that are going to abuse it on a massive level.
This domestic dragnet spying proposal is as dishonest and duplicitous as the corrupted Councilmembers that were paid to lobby for it, and passed it out of committee; like the Philly Fraudster; Jen “I am so despised that I had to gerrymander my district in order to get re-elected” Campbell.

The way in which our local news channels, now ALL owned by the corporate media in order to misinform and thus betray the public by presenting this proposal as if San Diegans are split 50/50 debate is absolute propaganda. Only approximately 20% of San Diegans have been mislead and only half heartedly support this gratuitous government overreach, the equivalent of Communist China Surveillance State in our “free country”.

The information will surveil everyone and create more abuse for political means and it will result in the elimination of proactive neighborhood policing in favor of “let the crime come to us.”
The almost assured potential for this tracking, storing and selling everyones movement 7 days a week, 24 hours a day and storing it indefinitely will be abused and sold. Anything Todd Gloria can do to hurt San Diegans in order to get his cut no matter who it hurts.

The duplicitous San Diego City Council and the undisputed King of Corruption Mayor Todd Gloria have incessantly proven time and time and time again to be the most corrupted legislative body in the Nation. This proposal proves it.

Our roads in San Diego are worse than Fallujah, our infrastructure is crumbling, we force thousands into homelessness on the 5th of each month and HAVE MADE NO EFFORT AND CONTINUE TO REFUSE TO MAKE ANY EFFORT TO PREVENT HOMELESSNESS SO THE CORRUPTED CAN CONTINUE TO PROFIT FROM HYPER GENTRIFICATION.


Eric July 24, 2023 at 2:37 pm

It sure would be nice to be able to vote on this. I don’t TRUST these groups that are making these decisions.


Chris July 24, 2023 at 6:20 pm

Neither do members of these groups.


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